Poor in Spirit Continued
Spiritual poverty is not a religious exercise of prayer, of worship and withdrawal from the world but the aptitude to manage and survive in the world. Jesus wanted his followers to be as clever as serpents and as harmless as doves (Mt. 10:16). The “makarioi” are not grasshoppers in a world of giants like the ten spies in Moses’ days (Num. 13:33). Rather they are the giants in a world of grasshoppers with an ultimate reason for being in this world. They know that the One that is within them is greater than the one that is in the world because He helps them overcome the world. It is when the saints stand out as heroes then the world listens (I Jn. 4:4-6). The saints have to redefine what it means to be poor in spirit. They do not have to become worldly to enjoy the worldly blessings for they too are God’s gift (Ps. 24:1). His gift is available to the good and the bad (Mt. 5:45). It is tragic that the good have left it to the bad to enjoy. The world is not kind to the saints because the saints are no longer competitive. They have forgotten that Jesus counseled them to make friends with mammon (Lk. 16:9). Render honest service (Mt. 22:21). Be a prudent investor (Mt. 25:14-30). Jesus too depended on people of means like Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, Mark’s home and the wealthy women (Mt. 27:55-56). Jesus enjoyed a little comfort and some sweet perfume (Jn. 12:3). It was not and is not what a person has but what he is and does that make him a “makarios.” It has to do with attitude and aptitude.
The proper attitude for Matthew was with those who were poor in spirit. These were not people who were begging for a living, but people who did not allow materialism to dictate or run their lives. In fact, the materially poor were more prone to hang on to their meager possessions than the spiritually poor that had no need to worry as to where their next meal would come from. Indeed, they were like the birds in the air and the grass in the field. All they had was God-given and all they did was merely to reinvest so that God could continue to multiply their earnings. The materially poor, however, hung on to their one talent and then lost it at the end. The law of economics did reward even the smallest investor. One had to sow before one could reap. There just was no harvest without first putting in the seed. In that sense, the materially poor did not trust God enough to multiply their efforts while the poor in spirit did. They had no doubt that God would look after their interests.
The key to the entire matter is this. One can be the wealthiest person in the world and yet be the poorest in spirit. Hence, he or she does not belong to the “makarioi” but to the saddest, sickest and most pitiful crowd in this world. Like the rich young ruler, their wealth does not allow them to follow Christ. And a person without Christ is the poorest being in the universe. In Jesus’ words, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul” (Mt. 16:26)? The safest place for the soul was in Christ’s kingdom, but it was not of this world (Jn. 18:36) nor was it like any organized system (Lk. 17:21). The condition of the heart or a Christ-like attitude and aptitude were the identifying marks of the members of this mysterious kingdom that controlled the behavior of the “makarioi.” They were and are in the world but not of the world (Jn.15: 19). Why are they in the world? Jesus’ answer was they were to be witnesses and living examples to what He had come to do (Jn. 17:20; Ac. 1:8). The kingdom Jesus brought was actually a way of life that reinstated fallen man’s status with the Creator (Mk. 1:15). The “makarioi” try to live and practice the will of God on earth (Mt. 6:10). At least, they come as close to heaven as one possibly can. For them, the heavenly kingdom or the kingdom of God begins in their hearts and minds (Phil. 2:5-11).
The writer of Matthew realized that these people were not destitute in their attitudes. The words, “in spirit” (to pneumati) has resulted in far too many speculations. In addition to being materially poor, these people were also mentally dependent on others and relied completely on God. Having lived during World War II, I see a different kind of people. The circumstances that were forced on them made them more alert, firmer, stronger and versatile. When we lived in hostile territory and had to run to stay alive, we used all our energy and skills God had endowed us with to survive. We were not cheering or rejoicing. We were praying while we ran. In our present situation, even with the loss of a grandchild and heavy financial losses, we cannot compare ourselves with the first followers of Jesus. They were unbelievably remarkable people. They endured the impossible and made the best out of the worst circumstances. They developed the aptitude to maintain a Christ-like attitude.
The “makarioi” are not being misled by the idea that they shall be different in heaven from what they are on earth. The people in heaven no longer do the will of God because they are like angels and God is not a God of angels but humans that still live on earth (Mt. 22:23-33). If we expect to change when we get to heaven then we should be a shocked as Jesus’ listeners were. I liked what our minister said in one of his sermons. “If you want to be with Jesus, get into the boat.” To the “makarioi,” the boat is the kingdom that lands them on the other side the lake or in heaven. Jesus was not sent by his Father to turn the world into a paradise but help humans become “makarioi.” Attitude is acquired with character building. All the preparations for eternity take place on earth. There is no human or earthly activity in heaven (I Cor. 15:50). The function of the Church on earth is to edify the saints so that they can practice and live out the will of God on earth (I Cor. 14:26). Paul told his Romans, “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up” (Ro. 15:1-2). Jesus prayed for Peter so that one day he would be strong enough to strengthen his brethren (Lk. 22:32). And after Peter became stronger, Jesus gave him charge over his followers to feed the lambs and tend the sheep (Jn. 21:15-19).
One does not become a “makarioi” over night. They all began being poor in spirit and allowed themselves to be filled gradually until their cup was overflowing. Look at the disciples that had been with Jesus for some time and they did not meet his expectation. Jesus complained, “How long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?”(Mt.17: 17). On the road to Emmaus, Jesus said to his companions, “How foolish you are and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (Lk. 24:25). The writer to the Hebrews was also being detained when penned these words, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb. 13:17). Jesus cautioned severely those that cause others to stumble (Lk. 17:1-4; Mt. 18:6-9).
Who then are the poor in spirit? They are the people, when their integrity is being questioned or assaulted, they, like their Lord, remain calm and silent. They do not lose their tempers and end up brawling and fighting. They, unlike Cain, have mastered their behavior. They are in control of their desires and passion. The Apostle Paul had a slight vision of such people. “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ” (Eph. 4:14-15). Storms and disasters do not derail these wise builders, because they build their lives on the Rock, which is Christ (Mt. 7:24-25). They are not sad spirits. They are grateful for the time God has allotted them to live beneficially in the world. They bow willingly to the ethics of God and do not bend them. They are in this world for a purpose and woe to them or those that hinder their objective. The role they play in this life shall determine where they shall be stationed in the hereafter. Their deeds shall be their certificates that shall hang on their eternal walls forever. For that reason God sent Christ to assist man in correcting his mistakes so that he can earn an honest diploma. And man can do it only in this life. Yes, people can become “makarioi” and join the invisible kingdom bound for heaven.
The “blessed” are being watched by a cloud of witnesses (Heb.12: 1), whether they do the will of their Heavenly Father (Mt.7: 21). Do they practice what they believe and preach? Does their life reflect their faith? Do they live by Christ’s law? What attitude do they display toward their enemies, their marriage partners, their own difficulties and circumstances beyond their control? Behavior matters not just to the worldly but also to the Lord. His analysis of the “Blessed” is based on performance and not just on faith (Mt.7: 15-20). Jesus has given the “Blessed” a list that shall qualify them for his kingdom. Those that do the chores without being told can consider themselves included without knowing they are. They were not placed in this world just to gain riches; but if they do then the riches should become a means by which they serve. Without means one cannot serve needs effectively. It takes a “makarios” to manage wealth without being corrupted by it. He has no earthly treasures that attract moths, rust and thieves (Mt.6: 19-21).
The “blessed” or the “makarioi” are not apparent to us earthlings but only to the Lord. Jesus did not find a single person among his own people. “Let me assure you. I have not found anyone in Israel with such a great belief as this man has. I tell you that many will come from east and west and sit with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into darkness where they will weep and grind their teeth” (Mt.8: 5-13). Jesus had a special place for them. “Come, you whom my Father has blessed and claim your share in the kingdom prepared for you before the world was created. When I was hungry, you fed me; I was thirsty, you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you took me into your home; I had no clothes and you gave me some of your own; I became sick and you looked after me; and when I went to prison, you visited me” (Mt.25: 34-36). Then the poor in spirit (the righteous) will answer, “When did we do all these things?” And the Lord will reassure them that what they had done for the least of his human creatures, they had indeed done for him (Mt.25: 40). The poor in spirit do not count their blessings; they are a blessing, and that is what makes them kingdom worthy.